Q&A with NACCHO President-Elect Dr. Umair A. Shah, Houston, TX

2017 National Public Health Week Celebration!

National Public Health Week is April 3-9, 2017. Please join us as we celebrate the power of prevention, advocating for healthy and fair policies, sharing strategies for successful partnerships and championing the role of a strong public health system. Here is one in a series of interviews with members of our Board of Directors. 

Q. Dr. Shah, what is your job title, where are you employed and what are your primary duties?

I am the Executive Director at Harris County Public Health (HCPH) and the Local Health Authority for Harris County, Texas – 3rd most populous county in the U.S. My primary job duty is to lead our wonderful local public health agency, made up of incredibly dedicated professionals who work hard to improve the health and well-being of our growing, diverse community. 

Q. Why did you choose public health as your career? 

I came to the field of public health because I really believe in serving others. Public health allows me to impact an entire community. When I was in college, I migrated from a planned science degree to philosophy. This taught me how to be more reflective and how to think outside-of-the-box.

As I went on to medical school, I never forgot the effect the  humanities had on me. I was drawn to medical ethics and how the world we live in significantly influences our health. I was so  inspired by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ambitious campaign to eradicate smallpox that I ventured on to complete an international policy internship at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. This showed me how policy and public health can come together to improve the health of others (in the case of the WHO, the world). In returning to the U.S., I realized that I could have an impact on the even smaller “world” of a local community. That’s one of the core reasons why I chose public health -- and I am glad I did. 

Q. One of the most pressing current concerns in public health is the potential loss of Prevention and Public Health Fund. How would this affect your health department and community?

The loss of the Prevention and Public Health Fund would be devastating for the country because such a large part of CDC’s budget comes from this fund. CDC, along with other federal agencies, are an essential funding agency for public health, whether at the state or local level. So, losing dollars at the federal CDC level has a  direct impact on local communities such as ours. While it’s not dollar for dollar of what comes into our specific department, we are directly or indirectly impacted when funding for breastfeeding, or screening for lead, or ensuring adequate laboratory capacity for infectious disease response is in jeopardy. Our hope is that whatever happens in the debate on “healthcare” or “health insurance” coverage, our national policy makers remember that “health” is much broader than this. Prevention works; it is valuable, it is an investment, and guess what? This investment is important for our nation’s safety, security, and overall well-being. It is important that everyone has the opportunity to reach optimal health.

Q. What is the proudest moment of your career? 

I have a list of “proudest moments” in my career as all of us do. But the one that sticks out to me most was when my then 5-year-old daughter saw me on TV once and said, “That’s my dad, and he’s keeping us safe from bad things.” That reminded me that this work is not just about what we do in our professional lives alone but that our professional lives have true meaning to people. Ultimately, our work is important to all of us, including the very children for whom we work hard each and every day to ensure a bright future.